UCLA psychologists report that when it comes to bullying behavior among middle school students, both physical aggression and spreading rumors are rewarded by middle school peers.
“The ones who are cool bully more, and the ones who bully more are seen as cool,” according to Jaana Juvonen, a UCLA professor of psychology and lead author of the study.
The study’s impetus was to determine whether aggression promotes social status, or whether those who are perceived as popular abuse their social power and prestige by putting other kids down.
When bullying increases social status and respect, “a simple message, such as ‘Bullying is not tolerated,’ is not likely to be very effective,” Juvonen said.
The psychologists studied 1,895 ethnically diverse students from 99 classes at 11 Los Angeles middle schools. Those students who were named the coolest at one time were largely named the most aggressive the next time, and those considered the most aggressive were significantly more likely to be named the coolest the next time.
The study implies that anti-bullying programs have to be sophisticated and subtle to succeed. Researchers add that effective anti-bullying programs need to focus on the bystanders, who play a critical role and can either encourage or discourage bullying.